I had the pleasure of speaking with magician Lance Burton about his teaching James Franco magic on the set of Oz the Great and Powerful! The film will be released on Blu-ray/DVD this June 11th. Keep reading for my interview, which also includes an update on what Lance Burton is doing now (and his bio).
MS: It’s an honor to talk with you, thank you for your time!
LB: Oh, my pleasure!
MS: You worked with James Franco on Oz the Great and Powerful. How did you land that job?
LB: Well, I’m not sure! Grant Curtis called – he’s one of the producers of the movie – and said, “We’re doing this movie, Oz the Great and Powerful, and the lead character played by James Franco is a magician. We’re were looking for someone to help with the magic and teach him”. So I flew out to Michigan, I met with Grant, and I met with Sam Raimi, the director. Sam introduced me to all the department heads. Everyone was very nice, and we were off and running.
MS: So there wasn’t any audition process, they just wanted you to come out.
LB: Yeah – I asked to see the script first so I knew what we were talking about with the magic. Grant sent me a copy of the script, and I read it – and I just really fell in love with the project. I loved the story, and I loved how the magic was incorporated throughout the story…and I really felt like I could make a contribution to the film. And then when I met with Sam, Sam said “I want you to teach James to do these magic tricks, but I also really want you to teach James your showmanship – your kind of flair. I want him to be a magician both on the stage and off the stage. I want him to be able to carry himself as a performer in that time period would.” He really wanted the magic to be genuine and authentic. That was really the best part of the whole thing.
MS: James Franco has said that you taught him the flourishes, but did you teach him a lot of magic tricks as well?
LB: Yeah – we worked on the magic. I met him originally a couple of months out, and we went over some things, and I gave him some homework to do – some things to practice. Before filming started, we had about a two week period where we could work every day, and rehearse specific magic tricks that we used in the film. He was very diligent, and a very quick study. He’s a very good student, picks things up very fast. Once we started filming, I was there on the set when he was doing the magic to keep an eye on the magic and to give him notes. It was really a collaborative effort.
MS: It seems that James Franco picks up on a lot of things quickly – writing, acting, and so much more! What was the typical day like at the beginning, when you were first teaching him?
LB: I felt bad for James, because during the preparation for the movie, they just ran him ragged. Every minute of his day was filled with people pulling him – down to wardrobe for fitting, and then pulling him into one room to rehearse a scene, and then I’m grabbing him saying “C’mon, we’ve got to rehearse the magic”. I did not envy him during the filming of that, because his day was just completely filled. He had a lot on his plate. But he seemed to be able to do everything equally well, and he seemed to enjoy learning the magic.
MS: It really showed on the screen. Did you share with him any magician secrets?
LB: Oh, yes. There was more magic that he learned and was shot than actually ended up in the film. James did a very good job with…I taught him some magic with live birds and he did it very well. As in all movies, not everything winds up on the screen.
MS: Speaking of birds – are rabbits or birds easier to work with?
LB: Well (laughing), everything is relative. We actually had birds and we actually did have a rabbit bit originally in the film, which didn’t wind up in the film. It wasn’t a real rabbit…it was a rabbit with a spring in it. It was like a teddy bear stuffed with cotton, and it had a spring – and you sort of manipulated it to look like a real rabbit. It actually is in the movie when Oz is packing up to leave, he’s at Glenda’s castle – he’s getting ready to vamoose. There’s a shot of him packing his bag, and he picks up the stuffed rabbit and sticks it in his bag.
MS: What made you want to be a magician?
LB: The first time I saw a magic show, I was very young – I was 5 years old. I saw a magic show, it was at a Christmas party. I was the kid that was the volunteer from the audience. I remember sitting there and the magician asked for a volunteer, and all of the kids raised their hands – but I was the one that got picked. I went up on the stage, and the magician’s name was Harry Collins. He was a very fine magician from Louisville, Kentucky – my hometown. He did a trick where he started pulling silver dollars out from behind my ear. And that was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. That was, I think, the defining moment in my life…I didn’t understand that it was a trick, an illusion. I was just 5 years old, so I thought it was real…I thought this man was finding this money behind my ear that I’d never noticed before. And later on, somebody explained to me that it wasn’t real magic, that it was illusion – a sleight of hand trick…that this man had studied it and practiced it. I thought, “That’s even better”, because if it was real magic – if you have the power, then you have it, if you don’t, you don’t. But, if it’s a skill, then maybe I could learn to do it. That’s what started me into studying magic and reading magic books, getting a magic set for Christmas.
MS: But wouldn’t it be great if you could just find money behind your ear at anytime?
LB: (Laughing) That’s what makes a good magic trick. A good plot. That trick has the perfect plot. What would you do…if you wanted a soda, you could reach behind someone’s ear and pull out a silver dollar and put it in the machine.
MS: What type of training did you have? Did you go to a magician school?
LB: I started out by reading books when I was a kid, and there was the magic set for Christmas…and Harry Collins, the magician who I originally saw, he took notice a little later on that I was really interested in magic. He became a mentor to me. But nowadays, kids can learn magic…books are still a great way to learn, but there are now instructional DVDs and there are magic schools. There is magic camp. Kids today have a lot more access to instruction and information than in my day.
MS: Who else was your role model while growing up?
LB: Well…Harry Collins was my first mentor, and then the magicians that I always read about and admired were Channing Pollock and Cardini, they were two great sleight of hand artists. Later on, I met a man named Johnny Thompson, he became my second mentor. Johnny and I still have a very close relationship to this day. In fact (laughing), when I first started working on Oz, Johnny was one of the guys I called, and I said “I’m working on this project, what do you think?” I started throwing ideas around to him to get some feedback.
MS: Did you teach any of the other actors, such as Mila Kunis, any magic?
LB: I met Mila Kunis, I hung out with her a little bit on the set – I did work a little bit with Michelle Williams. In the original script, at the end of the movie, there was a bit where she was doing a quick little magic thing that was a callback to something that Oscar Diggs had done earlier in the film. So I did work with her for a little bit, and was teaching her to do that trick. Unfortunately, her trick got cut.
MS: When you were watching Oz the Great and Powerful for the first time, did you recognize your techniques?
LB: First of all, I was just thrilled to be seeing the finished product. And of course, I wanted to see how all the magic turned out. I was very happy with all the magic. I think my biggest moment in watching the movie was when Oscar Diggs first was in the Emerald City, and he goes into the throne room and meets Evanora…he’s sitting on the throne. And there’s a shot of him with a scepter, and he’s twirling the scepter in his fingers – kind of like a baton. The way that came about…I was reading the script one day, and I noticed that scene that says he sits on the throne and picks up the scepter. Evanora is enraged to see him sitting there on the throne. And I thought “Ah, that scepter!” You see, I was already teaching James how to twirl a cane between his fingers, I thought that was might be a nice little flourish. But then when I read about the scepter, I thought “Wait a minute!”, that would be a great way…a great thing to do, if he twirled the scepter between his fingers…because that would be very disrespectful (to Evanora). I talked to Sam about it, and he liked the idea – and James, everyone liked it. And I went to the prop department and said, can you show me the scepter? They showed it to me, and it was a little short to do the move. I said “Is there any way you can make this longer?” And they said “Sure, that’s simple, we can make it a little longer”. I said “Great!” And so I had James rehearsing twirling with a cane, so he was learning that move. But I left the set before they got to that scene, I was there for all the Kansas stuff because that is where most of the magic happens…and in part of Oz, in the Whimsy Woods, where there is a little magic going on. But I wasn’t on the set when they taped the scene in the throne room, so I had no idea if they’d used it or not. So when I actually saw the film, and I saw him twirl the cane in the throne room, that was like “YES!”
MS: I will need to re-watch that scene! What was your favorite moment working on the film?
LB: I would say the levitation there in Kansas…that was the most action-packed for me. We had rehearsed that for a long time, hypnotizing the girl and having her float…covering her with a cloth and vanish. When we were filming that, that was exciting because I got to be right in the middle of it. I remember we did one take, and then I went over to talk to Sam said “Is there any way that could happen a little faster?” I went over and talked to some of the stagehands, the special effects guys that were helping me out backstage, and got it all organized and did it again. I looked over at Sam, “How’s that Sam?” and he said “Yes, good – that is what I wanted!” That was cool.
MS: That is a great story! Can you tell us about your current projects?
LB: Currently I’m working on a couple of things…I’m involved in a documentary about magic. I’m executive producer on that, working with some very talented documentary filmmakers. The main thing I’m working on right now is, I’m directing a small independent film called Billy Topit Master Magician. And it’s a project I’ve been working on for the last couple of years, so it’s a little independent comedy.
MS: Do you have any advice to kids looking to be a magician like yourself?
LB: Yeah…the first magic I learned, I learned from reading books. And there are really good books out there for beginners on magic. I would suggest starting there, and there are the instructional DVDs, which weren’t around when I was a kid. And that is a really good way to learn, because you can actually see the trick performed, and then you have someone explain it to you step by step. The main thing is, you rehearse. That is the great thing about magic, it’s something you can work on on your own. You can go in the bedroom, stand in front of a mirror and you can practice your magic. You can spend hours doing that. But then, you can take those skills that you’ve learned out into the world. I used to go to school when I was a kid, and during our lunch break I’d do magic for my classmates. It’s really a nice way for kids, especially kids who are shy, to interact with other people in a social situation.
MS: Pulling the coins out of the ears! Congratulations, Lance, on the movie and the upcoming Blu-ray release.
LB: Thanks Denise!
LANCE BURTON BIO
LANCE BURTON is widely considered by his peers to be the greatest stage Magician of the past century. As magic historian Mike Caveney has stated; “Take every Magician in the world, line them up and give them each twelve minutes…Lance Wins!”
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Lance Burton burst onto the national stage on October 28, 1981 by making his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. So impressed was Carson while watching the rehearsal that he allowed Lance to do an unprecedented 12-minute routine. Through the course of Burton’s career he was invited back for a total of ten appearances while Johnny Carson was host, and another ten appearances during Jay Leno’s tenure.
Over the years Lance Burton has performed on a wide range of TV shows. He racked up appearances on David Letterman, Jay Leno, The View, Craig Ferguson, The World’s Greatest Magic, Hollywood Squares, and even acted in guest staring roles on Knight Rider, and Las Vegas.
In 1996 Lance Burton’s first TV special, LANCE BURTON MASTER MAGICIAN; THE LEGEND BEGINS, aired on NBC. This was quickly followed by a series of annual TV specials. These include
LANCE BURTON MASTER MAGICIAN; THE ENCOUNTER,
LANCE BURTON MASTER MAGICIAN; TOP SECRET,
LANCE BURTON MASTER MAGICIAN; ON THE ROAD,
LANCE BURTON MASTER MAGICIAN; YOUNG MAGICIAN’S SHOWCASE.
He also hosted specials for The History Channel, Discovery, Animal Planet, The Family Channel, and many more.
While successful on TV, Lance Burton’s greatest accomplishments have been made in live performance. Working primarily in Las Vegas he has performed an astounding FIFTEEN THOUSAND shows in his 30-year career. His first job in Vegas was as a featured act in “The Folies Bergere” at The Tropicana Hotel, a job he held for nine years. In 1991 he opened his own show, “Lance Burton World Champion Magician”, at the Hacienda Hotel, which ran for five years.
In 1996 “Lance Burton Master Magician” opened at the brand new Monte Carlo Hotel in the Lance Burton Theatre. This was the first time any entertainer in the history of Las Vegas had a theatre built and named for him. The contract at the Monte Carlo was for an unprecedented 13 years, the longest contract ever given to a live performer. Lance stayed at the Monte Carlo for a total of 14 years, performing over Five Thousand shows for over Five Million fans, grossing over Two Hundred Million Dollars. His last performance was September 4, 2010.
Throughout his career Lance Burton has received numerous awards and accolades from his peers.
1980- First Magician to be awarded the GOLD MEDAL from the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
1982- First American and youngest Magician to win the GRAND PRIX (World Championship) from the Federation Internationale Societes des Magiques.
The Academy of Magical Arts (AMA) has honored Lance Burton with awards many times, including;
BEST STAGE MAGICIAN
MAGICIAN OF THE YEAR (twice)
THE MASTERS FELLOWSHIP
In the Las Vegas Review Journal ‘Best of Las Vegas’ readers poll Lance Burton was voted BEST MAGICIAN a dozen years in a row, a feat unequaled to this day.
Today Lance Burton is happily retired and lives quietly in Las Vegas. He spends his time supporting a number of charities including Heaven Can Wait Animal Society, Variety Children’s Charity, and the Shriner’s Children’s Hospitals. He mentors young Magicians, and has taken up a hobby, filmmaking. He is currently working on a number of documentary and narrative film projects. Recently Lance worked on OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL as Magic Advisor. He taught magic to James Franco, who he now considers his number one student.